Unless you've been living under a rock, you probably know that Research In Motion announced last week that it's replaced dual-CEOs Mike Lazardis and Jim Balsillie with the heretofore unknown Thorsten Heins. The news came on the heels of recent (and very public) questions about the leadership of the company, as its marketshare continues on a steep, downward path.
I've been watching and listening as plans for the next stage of RIM and the BlackBerry brand unfold, both via stated intentions from Mr. Heins, as well as through rumor and speculation from the media at large. Inspired I am not.
If believers in the company's product were hoping for an about-face — one which might begin the healing the company badly needs — the messaging in the transition has not reflected such an effort. On the contrary; little in the messaging reflects a change at all.
I felt it might be necessary to try and nudge RIM in the right direction by offering a few pieces of advice. Having had front-row seats to the implosion of a technology company or two in my time, I think I could be of service.
Below follows my best advice for the company. I sincerely hope they'll heed it.
1: Find a CEO with new ideas
Although the change in management seems exciting, the man tapped to replace the outgoing CEOs isn't exactly a forward-thinking firebrand. In fact, Thorsten Heins has been alternately SVP of the BlackBerry Handheld division, COO of Product Engineering, and COO of Product and Sales through some of the worst years in the company's history.
That alone might be reason for pause, but one need only read post-promotion interviews with Heins to know where his head is at. He told The Wall Street Journal that there was going to be "continuity" with the company's previous strategy, then responded to the Globe and Mail's questions about change thusly: "Change to what? Change for what?"
Furthermore, even though Heins admits only a small number of users have adopted the company's latest devices, he seems to believe that those products are competitive with iOS and Android offerings in the market. The problem is that they are not, and the failure to recognize this extremely critical fact is troubling. It's hard to fix something you don't believe is broken.
Though he talks excitedly about the company's forthcoming BlackBerry 10 platform, it seems like the change to yet another new OS (making it four versions in two years, counting the PlayBook) is coming from a begrudging place. Admittedly, since the first days of the announcement, Heins has stepped back from a "stay the course" message, but it's hard not to see that as a reaction to the blowback (and stock hit) over his initial statements rather than honest intentions.
Still, if you want to get through this, RIM, I think you're going to need to do better than Heins. You're going to need to find someone who inspires. Someone who energizes. Someone who has new ideas — not a dream of old ones that they just can't shake.
2: Stop betting on past successes
For years RIM has maintained that BlackBerry devices were better than other platforms thanks to hooks like BBM, a great physical keyboard, push email, and superior security.
But here's the reality: BBM has been obviated thanks to services like iMessage, nearly every platform does push email now, it turns out people really don't mind virtual keyboards, and though you may have great security features, enterprise operations around the world can't deploy iPads and iPhones fast enough to their teams.
Cold water? You've lost your edge. Your OS is worse, your applications are worse, your key features have been marginalized, and you literally have nothing innovative to talk about. Even no-marketshare-Microsoft bests you in this department. They are actually moving forward, not looking back.
To fix this problem you have to actually innovate. Find a way to bring consumers and developers back to your platform. What would motivate one of iOS' top-earning developers to choose your operating system on which to build their next app? What would make a consumer choose your phone over the iPhone 5, or the latest Android device? If you don't have a real answer to those questions, you're going to have a problem finding your way out of this mess —and the answers have nothing to do with great security.
3: Stop marketing only to BlackBerry users
RIM, you want to tell your story to people who already like you, and you want to sell your devices to people who already own your devices. You've been banking on those users' need to tap into the aforementioned "key features" in the section above, and believing that that was enough to keep your brand growing.
The problem is a lot of those users see your devices as a cage, and iPhones and Android handsets look like a set of keys. People aren't upgrading to new BlackBerry phones — they're graduating to better products.
If you can't figure out how to tell a story about your devices that presents them as something new to be loved and lusted after, you can't win consumer hearts. The shopping public is a fickle bunch, and as I said in section 2, you can't rely on past successes to predict future results. If that were the case, you'd still own the market for smartphones.
4: Swallow your pride
I noticed something a few years ago when Mike Lazaridis was on stage at an industry event discussing RIM products — he seemed indignant about the fact that the company got to the smartphone market first. When Lazaridis was pressed about the company's slowed innovation, his response was something along the lines of "we were here first." The message to me was 'we were here first, so we have providence.'
Just before the original iPhone launch at Macworld, then Palm CEO Ed Colligan was famously quoted as saying "PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They're not going to just walk in."
We know how that turned out for Palm and Apple.
In technology, first doesn't matter: best matters. Being prideful about your former place in a world that has moved on doesn't serve your current users or the users yet to come — it just locks you into a mindset that likely isn't that useful.
The thing to do here is to admit that you've made mistakes. Reevaluate how you've run your business. Where you've put your money and energy. Did you screw up? Could you have done better? Did Apple beat you, or did you let yourself get beat?
The answer is probably in there somewhere, but you never arrive at the answer if you don't start asking the questions — and you can't ask questions if you're too proud to admit something went wrong.
RIM has made and can make wonderful devices and software. There is a Bold 9900 on the desk next to me, and it's an impressive piece of gadgetry. Is it as good as the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy Nexus? Not by a longshot... but there is DNA in that phone that is worth salvaging. There is DNA in RIM that is worth salvaging.
Like many big undertakings, this is a project where substantial demolition is required before rebuilding can start.
Here's hoping RIM has the nerve to start swinging that hammer.